Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ike Reilly: Hard Luck Stories

What makes for a good E Street rip-off band? When the 21st century began, copping moves from the Boss suddenly became critically acceptable, as bands like the Hold Steady, Marah and The Gaslight Anthem garnered praise and some mainstream exposure. That never happened for Ike Reilly, and I'm not sure why. He might just be stealing the wrong stuff -- the aforementioned groups mimic the adrenal, fist-pumping sounds of Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A, while Reilly tends towards the looser, more playful early stuff like Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Before Springsteen decided to save your soul with rock and roll he had a loveable persona as a charming, boozy beach-bum poet, a jazzier, more eclectic sound and a propensity for tall tales. That's pretty much the vein that Reilly's been mining for eight albums and counting, with little to show for it besides a small cult following and a bunch of really good songs. But hey, what the hell... Bruce's early stuff didn't sell either at the time, and those albums were terrific too.

"Hard Luck Stories," Reilly's newest record, opens with "Morning Glory," a loose, shaggy pop tune driven by a shuffling backbeat, colored by jammy keyboard flourishes and brief harmonica sighs. It's not a love song, it's a sex song, or more specifically a lack-of-sex song -- the narrator is sleeping on the floor, trying to scheme his way into the bed by morning. The song is clever, fun, and a little bit sleazy -- a pleasant way to start an album that for all its humor and musical jubilation is mostly, true to it's title, a bunch of hard luck stories.

"Lights Out, Anything Goes," is the both album's most infectious tune and its most devastating tale, an obtruse story of a hapless father watching his relationship with his son disintigrate for reasons neither he or the listener quite understand. ("I had a boy, I gave him my name -- he gave it back when he moved away.") The story's tough to parse -- a broken circuit shuts the power in their house, the kid becomes a Jesus freak, at some point there's a dead body somehow involved. But the track is joyous and propulsive, driven by handclaps, a buzzing synth and an ominously stalking Marc Ribot-style guitar line. That's Reilly's trademark dissonance -- rapture and resignation, ecstasy and self-destruction all collide. The baffling nature of the lyrics works perfectly -- the song's narrator can't quite figure out where everything went wrong, and neither can we. Like him (and maybe like Reilly) we're "always mixing up the saviors and the fakers."

Hard Luck Stories isn't a masterpiece -- there are almost as many misses as hits -- but it's a very strong piece of work, filled with good yarns and catchy tunes. He sounds like a slacker, but there's a hidden ambition in Reilly's bohemian bar-room poetry. He's trying to wrap his arms around the whole damn thing: hope, anger, love, death, dissolution, sex -- mundanity and transcendence, dreams and defeat. Hard Luck Stories will be dismissed by most as dad-rock, and I can't really defend it against that charge -- Reilly's most recent influences are older than I am, and I'm closer to thirty than twenty. But Christ, who cares? It all sounds really good; the songs are catchy as hell, and the lyrics stories are dark and funny, big-hearted and well observed, sad and sweet. That ought to be enough.

In "The Ballad of Jack and Haley" an amiable, sunny melody obscures a touching and devastating story of a man passionately devoted to two things: his daughter and the high-grade marijuana plantation he's cultivating in his basement. Jack's a single dad, getting by and getting high until he gets busted and sent upstate and Haley's shipped off to live with her aunt. In his letters Jack writes, "Don't waste your money on ditch-weed, honey, I'll be out before you know, and I'll plant another indoor garden for you and we'll watch it grow." Jack is the iconic Ike Reilly character: full of hopes and schemes and love -- alive, awake and longing -- and doomed to make the same mistake twice.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Best Albums of the Decade

...as determined by science.

50. Black Keys: Thickfreakness
49. Destroyer: Rubies
48. O'Death: Head Home
47. Vic Chesnutt: Skitter on Take-off
46. Amy Winehouse: Back to Black
45. Warren Zevon: The Wind
44. Smog: A River Ain't Too Much to Love
43. Libertines: Up the Bracket
42. Beck: Sea Change
41. Hoots and Hellmouth: The Holy Open Secret
40. Mirah: Advisory Committee
39. Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine
38. Dr. Dog: Fate
37. William Shatner: Has Been
36. The Waifs: Up All Night
35. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend
34. Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
33. Modest Mouse: Moon and Antarctica
32. Drive-by Truckers: Southern Rock Opera
31. Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock and Roll
30. Mendoza Line: 30 Year Low
29. Eminem: Marshall Mathers LP
28. Franklin Bruno: Kiss Without Makeup
27. Spoon: Gimme Fiction
26. Outkast: Stankonia
25. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois
24. Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists
23. Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker
22. Okkervil River: Stage Names
21. Josh Ritter: Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
20. Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere
19. Walkmen: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone
18. Nick Cave: Murder Ballads
17. Strokes: Is This It
16. Hold Steady: Separation Sunday
15. Dresden Dolls: Dresden Dolls
14. Elliott Smith: Figure 8
13. Bright Eyes: Fevers and Mirrors
12. Brian Wilson: Smile
11. Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping
10. Mountain Goats: Tallahassee
9. Johnny Cash: American Recordings IV
8. M. Ward: Transfiguration of Vincent
7. Killers: Hot Fuss
6. Tom Waits: Real Gone
5. Radiohead: Kid A
4. Marah: Kids in Philly
3. White Stripes: White Blood Cells
2. Bob Dylan: Love and Theft
1. Arcade Fire: Funeral